How FDR saved captialism in eight days.

The history behind current events.
Oct. 24 2008 4:34 PM

Presidential Firepower

How FDR saved capitalism in eight days.

(Continued from Page 1)

The speech that followed picked up on FDR's confident assertion, made in his inaugural, that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Like a friendly teacher, he spelled out with clarity how banks work. ("When you deposit money in a bank, the bank … invests your money in many different forms of credit. …") He went on to explain the crisis and his decision to intervene, stressing that most banks hadn't engaged in "incompetent or unwise" behavior but that the actions of a few had triggered widespread insecurity, which, in turn, had sparked the run on the banks.

Roosevelt laid out his plan to right the system, with special attention to the concerns of the average depositor—a person he literally imagined, recalling in his mind the builders, farmers, and clerks he knew from New York's Dutchess County. He even anticipated their questions. ("Another question you will ask is this: Why are all the banks not to be reopened at the same time?") He exuded none of the condescension that has long been Bush's trademark—that unearned confidence of the small-time operator who doesn't realize that in the big leagues, not everyone will be charmed by his patter. Instead of salesmanship, Roosevelt confidently insisted that his plan deserved the public's trust. "Please let me make it clear to you that if your bank does not open the first day you are by no means justified in believing that it will not open," he patiently explained. "A bank that opens on one of the subsequent days is in exactly the same status as the bank that opens tomorrow. I know that many people are worrying about State banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System. There is no occasion for that worry."


The reviews were gushing. "Our president took such a dry subject as banking," said Will Rogers, "and made everybody understand it, even the bankers." Years later Raymond Moley, a member of Roosevelt's "Brains Trust," concluded: "Capitalism was saved in eight days." And when the first of the banks reopened, people indeed kept their deposits in—and began putting their mattress money back in as well. The bank holiday was over, but Roosevelt's honeymoon was just beginning. By April 12, 13,000 once-destitute banks were operating again.

Of course, FDR did more than talk. Without policies to back up his rhetoric, the New Deal would have failed. (Despite a current of thought that insists that Roosevelt's economic policies did nothing, they in fact helped the economy and improved the lives of millions of needy Americans in both the short and long terms.) Similarly, without prudent management of the banking crisis, he might never have turned his 100 days into a whirlwind of legislation—legislation that included the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which itself further helped persuade citizens not to hide their money anymore.

FDR believed his rhetoric about fearing fear. He grasped the psychological dynamics of the panic and treated them as legitimate. And so he directed his speechmaking at the goal of fortifying the public's morale. In so doing, he managed to replace a downward vortex of panic with an upward spiral of hope.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.



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